Connecting Britain's railways with mobile

Derek McManus, COO O2

I often get asked how do you get better mobile signal on trains? Unfortunately there’s no simple answer. To get right for our customers, a commitment to innovation and investment is needed from both government and industry alike.

Recently the Government launched its plan to future-proof rail connectivity to ‘pave the way for 5G,’ alongside a call for public input into a series of proposals. This followed on from a number of other announcements earlier in the year:

  • The updated 5G strategy from the Government included a renewed commitment to ‘developing a model to secure fast, reliable mobile connectivity on main rail routes’
  • The Government announced its new rail strategy to fix ‘creaking’ railways
  • In October Philip Hammond announced a £300m boost for northern rail links, followed by £35m of new funding to look at ways of improving connectivity for passengers on trains in the Autumn Budget

So the momentum is there, but what actually needs to happen?

Fundamentally, there are two key elements to getting mobile connectivity on trains right: trackside infrastructure and in-carriage connectivity.

For in-carriage connectivity, there needs to be a shift in the approach to carriage construction to do even more to factor in mobile technology. Progress has been made, but work must continue to ensure signal is boosted effectively within carriages across the country.

But equally, we also need to get signal near the tracks with trackside infrastructure. Currently operators largely rely on existing masts which are often some distance from railway itself. In order to deploy high-capacity mobile connectivity we need a new model of trackside infrastructure planning, with better access to existing infrastructure and permission to access and build new masts.

I’m looking forward to seeing what the Trans Pennine Initiative starting later this year shows us. It’s important to learn from trials like this that test out different options for passenger connectivity before we start implementing wide-scale plans.

I hope to be able to continue positive conversations with government, the rail industry and landlords to work collaboratively and efficiently together to bring better connectivity to customers on trains.

Ultimately, to connect Britain’s railways with mobile, we need to think mobile-first and we need to work together to get there. It’s not just about getting it right for now, it’s about laying the groundwork for things like 5G, so as a country we can capitalise on it when it’s here.

It’s only by collaborating and investing now that we that we can build a world-beating digital future that benefits consumers, businesses and Britain as a whole.

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